February 8, 2007
Thanks to Mary-Ruth’s last minute invite, tonight’s agenda went from night of solitary Bellow reading/Bodganovich watching/Anna Nicole Smith blogging to slightly less solitary documentary watching–and since the movie was the Will Shortz weepie “Wordplay,” it feels appropriate to leave my thoughts on the late Ms. Smith for another time, and to bide my time away with some lexiblography, and ruminant opinions on the film.
“Wordplay” is a solid documentary in the “Spellbound” mold: follow a group of leading contendors for a nerdy, intellectual prize (though recognizable to mainstream society), add equal parts tension, levity, and fetishism; mix with kitsch, and vigor, and hit movie shall ensue. “Spellbound” success was its ability to capture the zeitgeist (see also, ESPN’s airing of the Bee’s, Bee Season, The Decemberists’ “Song for Myla Goldberg,” an episode of “Frasier” ripping off Bee Season, Akeelah and the Bee, Bed Bath and Beyond) and the way it captured the tension of the Bee’s. Appositively, crosswords, the subject of “Wordplay” for those unsure, are not anywhere near as competitive. With less natural conflict, the movie rightly aimed for a sense of whimsy. Unfortunately, this lightheartedness cost the movie some depth, and injections of tension, rather than satisfying, are jarring.
The movie’s big moment of conflict comes at the Crossword puzzle finals, on the word, “Zolaesque.” Zolaesque is listed in the OED under the Zolaism, defined as “The literary manner characteristic of the French novelist Émile Zola (1840-1902), whose works are marked by an excessively realistic treatment of the coarser sides of human life.” Fine and dandy. Still, I can’t imagine just how hard it would be to recreate this word (although getting the Z would help). Unlike, say Kafka or Pynchon, dropping “Zola” in casual, or even semi-literate circles (like this internet community) will evoke little qualified statements about the nature of his work. My knowledge of Zola is pretty much limited to his indictment of the Dreyfus affair, and the accompanying praise in Scholem-Aleichem (Mr. How-do-you-do). Kafkaesque is a highly evocative word; I expect weird machines and hungry people, and things generally having to do with modernism. Zolaesque? Not so much. I was going to complain about the word, but then again, the people in the movie are basically professional puzzle solvers, charged with knowing everything there is to know about dictionarys. Instead, I’ll say this: that word was too easy! Everyone knows Zola! What other Z author is there?